I have learned that there is a particular kind of grace in play among profoundly compassionate former addicts or alcoholics who have an intense desire to serve others who struggle. This compassion is like an energy that lights up their presence like a soothing balm or a beam of light. The shine can quell the feelings of doubt and fear that a person new to recovery can experience, transforming that chaos with their compassion.
This month I would like you all to meet a special kind of miracle-giver and dream-fixer: Megan Maxwell, a certified peer recovery support specialist.
As a prerequisite for this occupation, there is an obvious condition — a massive one. You have to have in-depth, firsthand knowledge. You have to walk the walk and talk the talk. You have to be a recovering addict or alcoholic in long-term recovery. There can be no faking this. You have to show up every day with your sleeves rolled up and your battle stories ready to preach the gospel of transformational recovery. You have to be willing to share the deepest dark places you have escaped and do it freely and frequently.
In her own words, she was a “suburban, full-time working soccer mom.” One with a secret problem of a daily alcohol habit that functioned “for a long time, and then, it didn’t.”
There was the shaking in the morning, the tumbler of wine packed with the hope that small sips on her breaks could get her through the workday. As many of us learn to do, she could hide the urgent need at first.
But the sickness of addiction takes over. Her co-workers had noticed the shaking. She would wave them off with reasons and excuses, blaming it on intense anxiety and lack of sleep, but she knew the illness was getting worse. The truth was that she had to have the drug, or her body could not cope with the withdrawal.
As is typical with the malady of a substance use disorder, Megan’s physical and mental health declined. More specifically, the overwhelming anxiety was mounting. Then there was that day of the visit to the hospital, as a coworker thought she was having a heart attack and insisted that she go immediately to the ER.
The charade of trying to stay undercover all became too, too much.
Megan decided it was finally time to ask for help. She confessed to her husband, and then they decided to see a trusted family doctor.
This is the place in the story where we all can exhale, right? Nope.
“His exact words I’ll never forget,” Megan says. “‘I don’t believe in AA, I don’t believe in a God, I don’t think any of that stuff is going to help you. I don’t think you are an alcoholic, I think that you need to quit drinking for six months, and then you’ll be fine.’” Megan says he gave her some Ativan and Zoloft and sent her home.
It didn’t work.
Luckily for Megan, there was another option: Interval Brotherhood Home, known as IBH, Akron’s well-established treatment center. There she found a community, learned about the disease model of addiction and made the redemptive discovery that this was a medical problem. She wasn’t a bad person; she was sick.
Megan began a period of extended abstinence, and this was the turning point in her transformation. Although challenging, it was during this time that her life’s outlook changed. As the recovery journey begins, many of us start to look around, realize the wreckage of our past actions and seek to make amends, spiritual and actual — many start by knowing not what they want to do, but what they cannot do any longer.
In the first miles of recovery and, as luck would have it, Megan came across an opportunity at Oriana House. It was a chance to be employed, get training, and start the certification that eventually led to the work she does now in the Turning Point program. It was a gift to begin a vocation with a higher purpose. A new cup to fill with a profound sense of a spiritual mission, a calling that provided the opportunity to serve and help others with so much on the line. Today she assists others in this: Prison avoided, felonies expunged, families mended, healing facilitated, lives second-chanced…
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Megan told me that she shares knowledge by helping her clients see that whatever led them to their struggles didn’t happen overnight. They should expect that the development of the habits and lifestyle will take time. She counsels them to stay here. Now. Behavior change is practice. No one ever figures it all out. But when we are aware, we are making progress.
When I met Megan for this interview and she greeted me, she saw one of her clients coming out of a meeting with another colleague. There was obviously an issue of great importance on the line for this young man because she stopped and turned toward him. As they began whispering, his head hung low, I could tell that there was trouble in his heart and on his mind. I saw her gently reach and hold his forearm in a warm and comforting way and speak soft reassurance. I could not hear the words as I stepped back to allow them this private and personal moment. But I could see the young man glance up and give a small smile of gratefulness for her gesture, flowing with kindness.
The former soccer mom who had lost all control was now the beam of light, helping to quell the doubt and fear in this young man’s troubles. It’s the one gift we all get to share when we have some time in recovery.
We get to share that it is possible. You can recover. You can replace the chaos with compassion.